CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
April 24, 2019

Commentary: Rubber sole

Citing abuse, L.L. Bean gives lifetime returns policy the bounce.

At the time, it made good business sense. Looking to make a clear and bold statement about the quality of his wares, Leon Leonwood Bean launched a company with a lifetime product replacement policy. The then-humble enterprise, primarily a manufacturer of the now-iconic rubber-soled hunting boot with a unique chain-link tread, established itself as a mail-order catalog company in 1912 when Bean sent a mailer to out-of-state sportsmen touting a new hunting boot design.

His pledge was immediately put to the test, and a return policy that would last more than a century became a hallmark of the company. Of the first 100 pairs of hunting boot orders he filled, a full 90 were returned when the tops and bottoms of the boots separated. Bean refunded the money, corrected the problem, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That is, until last month.

The venerable Freeport, Maine, manufacturer and purveyor of outdoor clothing, footwear, and equipment announced it was ending its 106-year-old no-questions-asked lifetime return policy. The reason seems simple: A few bad actors ruined it for the rest of us, according to an open letter to customers from L.L. Bean Executive Chairman Shawn Gorman.

"Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers [have] been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent," Gorman wrote. "Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years," he said. "Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as yard sales."

He was being kind.

We all know "that person" who pushes a good thing beyond the limits of reasonableness. Some of the stories are legendary. There was the customer who purchased a fresh Christmas wreath and then sent it back for a refund after the holidays. It arrived back in Freeport brown, dried-out, and free of needles.

Over the years, L.L. Bean has replaced (or refunded the cost of) decades-old sweaters bought at estate sales, tents that had worn out after years of heavy use, and, yes, those iconic boots. There is a tale (possibly an urban myth) of third-generation boots, meaning there is now someone wearing boots that trace back to a pair his grandfather bought in the 1920s that were returned for a new pair every few years, first by the grandfather, then by the father, and now, by the grandson.

L.L. Bean still has a return policy, but now the retailer will only honor returns within one year of purchase, with a receipt. There will be exceptions. If an item bought more than a year ago is found to be defective (not just worn out), the company says it will work out a "fair solution."

It doesn't seem to be much of a stretch to conclude that changes in the retail landscape also played a role in the demise of L.L. Bean's legendary return policy. The world (and shoppers) moved much more slowly 100 years ago, and even just five or 10 years ago, compared with today.

While the return policy was no doubt always open to abuse, the ease with which customers can inflict that abuse has ramped up exponentially as we've moved into the world of e-commerce. Retailers have made it easy to just click, buy, receive, and return. And return we do. In droves. In fact, it is estimated that fully one-third of all online purchases are sent back.

The combination of its legendary return policy and the changes wrought by online commerce likely made L.L. Bean's decision an obvious, if not easy, call to make.

Mitch Mac Donald is Group Editorial Director of AGiLE Business Media.

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